After sampling seven brands of meatless burgers, most Monitor taste-panel volunteers were left demanding: "Where's the beef?"
Indeed, most were so unimpressed, they left early in search of the literal and metaphorical meat lacking from their lunch.
Among the general public, however, meatless burgers are finding receptive palates. "The last five years has been an expanding market for veggie burgers," says Randy Wollert, senior brand manager for Worthington Foods, the Morningstar line of meatless burgers.
Sales of veggie burgers in the US reached $134 million last year, up 57 percent over 1997. Mr. Wollert attributes the surge in popularity to a desire by consumers to lower their red meat and fat consumption.
The winner of the test was Morningstar Farms Garden Veggie Patty, a melange of ingredients including mushrooms, water chestnuts, peppers, and olives. It was also judged the least meat-like. "[But] it doesn't try to be," said one panelist.
Indeed, panelists didn't think much of veggie burgers as hamburger substitutes. Everyone agreed that "real" burgers are more flavorful.
Finishing a close second was Morningstar FarmsGrillers - vegetable and grain-protein patties. The two Morningstar burgers fried the competition in categories of overall taste, texture, and aroma.
The range of ingredients under the veggie-burger rubric is extensive. In addition to a vast variety of vegetables - chopped to anything from a fine pure to chunky texture - veggie burgers can include grains like rice, wheat, and oats, as well as many other non-meat products.
By a garbanzo bean, Nature's Chef falafel burger took the bronze. Its Middle Eastern origins make it the oldest, most seasoned, and most familiar veggie burger around the globe.
Gardenburger, the No. 1 selling meatless burger in the US finished a pitiful fifth.
Panelists reserved their most colorful comments for the utterly uninspiring. Nature's Chef soy burger landed dead last with a sloppy "thud." Among the kinder comments: "It's not suitable for subway rats."
Overall, panelists were swayed more by the texture and taste of the burgers, than their aroma. Most were wary about further taste tests.
One tip for consumers who decide to do their own taste test: The flavor is best if the patties are fried in a small amount of vegetable oil, rather than microwaved.
*Carleton Cole is a Monitor intern.